Coffee—Beverage of Millions
BY “AWAKE!” CORRESPONDENT IN BRAZIL
IT IS not a drink to be gulped down like water, say those who favor it. It is not merely for washing down food. No, they claim, coffee is a drink to be savored. For enjoyment it must linger as it passes over the taste buds. Some persons derive the greatest pleasure from drinking it first thing in the morning. Others prefer it after their meal. But multitudes are ready to drink it at any old time. It is truly the beverage of millions.
Coffee has come a long way in a short time. As a beverage its history, reaching back some 700 years, is only half as long as that of its competitor, tea. But where did coffee get its start?
According to legend, some shepherds in Ethiopia noticed that sheep and goats remained awake at night after eating leaves of a certain tree. The shepherds tasted the leaves and berries and eventually brewed a drink from them that proved to be stimulating.
Merchants and travelers from Arabia took home with them from Ethiopia some of the plants, and these did well in their new surroundings. Indeed, it is from this emigration to Arabia that the plant receives its scientific name, Coffea arabica. For about two hundred years coffee continued a closely guarded secret of the Arabs. Eventually others got to know about the plant, and toward the end of the seventeenth century the Dutch were already cultivating it in Java—later also in Surinam on South America’s northern coast.
Despite its present popularity, coffee was not immediately accepted as a popular brew. Opposition to its use was raised on moral and religious grounds. Moslems were divided in their opinions as to the religious propriety of using this stimulating drink. In 1674 a group of English women petitioned the government to forbid the use of a beverage that, they said, tended to degenerate family men. Nevertheless, its popularity continued to grow steadily until it gained the reputation of being a favorite hot drink in virtually every country in temperate or cold climates.
To achieve its greatest triumph, coffee first had to find the climate best adapted for its cultivation—hot and humid, with other such essential requirements as rich, sandy soil in highland areas and temperature continuously within the 60-90° F. range. We have noted that the Dutch introduced it to South America, and they, like the Arabs before them, strove to retain coffee as a national secret.
It was only in 1727 that a Sergeant Major Francisco de Mello Palheta secretly carried the first coffee plants from French Guiana into Brazil. Little did he or others realize what big results would stem from that act. Brazil now grows about one third of the world’s coffee crop, and is now the world’s chief exporter, producing three times as much as does Colombia, its nearest competitor.
The Brazilian yield per tree is amazing. The average annual yield of a Brazilian coffee tree is between two and six pounds of berries, while in other lands the yield is likely to vary between seven ounces and somewhat over a pound and a half. Why the great difference? It is because the Brazilian trees can produce two or three crops a year.
The Coffee Tree and Its Berries
Generally coffee trees begin to bear fruit when they are three years old and will go on producing year after year for from twenty-five to fifty years.
The berries are like small green olives at first. Later they turn red and, when mature, they become dark red with a smooth, glossy surface. At the stage when the fruit is red the space between the bean and its outer casing contains a sweet nectar that is truly a delight to the palate. The berries must be picked at the right time. If they are not fully ripe they will lack flavor; if overripe, they fall to the ground and spoil.
Once coffee picking starts, the workers keep at it from early morning until late in the evening. There is good reason for this, since a sudden rainfall could spoil the harvest.
Then the berries are sacked and taken to machine driers or spread by hand on level areas to be dried in the sun. If the weather is suitable, three to ten days is sufficient time to complete the drying. When the berries can be broken open by hand, the time is right for them to be put through a machine that takes off the husks.
People are often mystified by the vast number of coffee brands from which they must choose—the qualities, blends and price ranges. Back of all this there is a careful classification of coffee, based on type, purity, size of bean and taste.
For example, the type classification is determined by taking samples from different sacks. By counting the number of defects in each nine-ounce sample the expert rates the shipment as of superior or inferior quality.
Each defect is assigned so many points or a certain value. The defects may be one of two kinds, namely, impurities such as stones or twigs that were not eliminated by machine or hand sorting, and defects in the beans themselves due to poor farming methods.
Then comes the cup test. Experts, trained to determine by taste whether a coffee is smooth or harsh, take a sip of sample after sample, never swallowing, but simply letting the coffee settle in their throats briefly before spitting it out.
The majority of the well-known brands of coffee do not differ greatly as to the kinds of coffee that make up their blends; yet each has a distinctive feature appealing to some persons. The blender uses his materials like an artist to produce a balanced and pleasing result. A blend, for instance, may contain “Brazils” to give body to it and “milds” for the delicacy of their flavor. Combining flavors, aromas and colors, the blender strives for a product that will please the eye, stimulate the taste buds and excel in aroma.
Some of the powdered coffee on the market is made up of cheaper grades of bean, since all the beans are ground to powder, and who knows whether the beans were of the finer variety or not?
Some Valuable Pointers
Because of its capacity for stimulation, coffee is often ruled out as a beverage for persons suffering from heart trouble or those of highly nervous temperament. But even among those of normal health there should be an awareness of the habit-forming tendency of coffee drinking. Some find it more healthful to drink coffee from which the caffeine has been extracted.
If you are a coffee drinker, however, you may find it advantageous to buy unground toasted coffee instead of the ground, packaged variety. When possible, it is best to have the coffee beans ground in your presence. In this way you can be sure of fresher coffee and there is less chance that you will be cheated through mixing of other ingredients with the coffee—ingredients such as sand, corn, beans, peanuts or blood, to mention but a few.
A simple test of the purity of ground coffee is to throw a dash of the coffee grounds on top of a cup of water. If the coffee is pure, the grounds will float, since they absorb water very slowly. If the coffee contains foreign matter, the grounds will absorb water rapidly and sink to the bottom of the cup.
If properly protected, toasted coffee keeps from ten to twenty days without losing its flavor. But when exposed to the air, whether toasted or untoasted, it will lose its aroma, flavor and color. Humidity will give it a musty odor. For these reasons coffee should be kept in a dry place and in tightly closed containers.
Coffee’s Many Uses
Coffee’s attractive flavor can delight the palate in a number of different forms. For example, cold coffee with sugar and a ring of lemon is quite refreshing. During the hot months of the year iced coffee and coffee-flavored ice cream are very popular. Some also use coffee as an ingredient in that delicious taste treat—coffee cake. However, the most popular form, favorite of millions around the world, still is plain coffee or coffee with milk.
But scientists are testing many other uses of the coffee bean. It has been noted, for example, that coffee ashes make a good fertilizer. Also, disinfectants and insulation for walls, floors and roofs have been made from coffee. Glycerin can be produced from coffee oil, and coffee oil can be used in paints, soaps and a host of other products.
So, the coffee bean is being put to more and more uses. But its popularity, of course, is mainly as a beverage. Just think of it! Americans drink more than 500 million cups of coffee each day. The average American uses about fifteen pounds of coffee annually. And each year in the United States almost 3,000 million pounds of coffee is consumed. Oddly enough, that figure is close to the entire coffee production of Brazil. Is there any doubt that coffee is the beverage of millions?